Politics is always a serious business. Sometimes terrifyingly so — just ask protesters in Iran, troops fighting in Ukraine or targets of bigotry in the United States. Even when lives aren’t at stake, all sorts of important consequences flow from politics, from the way our neighborhoods develop to the availability of health care to the policies shaping the economy to the possibility of a secure retirement.
But politics isn’t just about who gets what. It also can be entertaining, and occasionally, profound.
I’ll start with entertaining. There are some half a million elected officials in the US who run for office over the course of a full election cycle. With so many people participating in the political system, some of them are bound to be goofballs or crackpots.
Politics and politicians have always been a source of comic relief or charming diversion to the public, including to those of us whose jobs involve paying close attention to the consequences of political actions.
On Thanksgiving I’ve often expressed gratitude for that relief, whether we’re smiling with them or laughing at them. For Bernie Sanders and his mittens at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. For Senator Ted Cruz when he fled to Cancun during a Texas power crisis.
But odd behavior is a lot less entertaining when it has real and damaging consequences for the country. It might be amusing if, say, an obscure state legislator had claimed that she lost an election because a dead foreign dictator had rigged the voting machines. When the same claim is made by an attorney representing the US president, it isn’t very funny at all.
I haven’t been up for celebrating the amusing side of politics in the last few years, when too many political actors sought to undermine our democracy, and I’m not quite ready to do so this year.
But I will never shy away from celebrating what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called “public happiness.” Citing the wisdom of the nation’s founders, Arendt believed that we have a propensity for a kind of enjoyment found in participation in collective self-government. People get involved in politics for all sorts of reasons, including for private benefit. But many find that working with others for public purpose (even if the ultimate goal is private gain) can lead to happiness found nowhere else.
Indeed, one can read the Declaration of Independence’s famous invocation of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the right to seek personal benefits from public policy, or as the right to experience a positive feeling that comes with pursuing a common good for society.
An inclusive, participatory republic is important not just because it might offer a fair way of determining who gets what, but also because everyone deserves a chance to experience public happiness. Autocracy is evil not only because it leads to arbitrary and unfair distribution of public benefits, but also because it reserves public happiness only for the autocrat.
So Happy Thanksgiving everyone. And here’s hoping that the joys of politics, silly and profound, can continue to be spread to all who want them.
For holiday and weekend reading, here are some of the best recent items from political scientists:
• Julia Azari on Trump and the Republican Party.
• Seth Masket on Republicans, abortion and the midterms.
• David A. Hopkins of Bloomberg Opinion on what Republicans should learn from the midterms.
• Dan Drezner on the midterms and foreign policy.
• Bethany Lacina, Nicholas Carnes and Lilly J. Goren at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage on Wakanda and woke Marvel.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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